SANTA ANA, Calif. – A man was sentenced today to 25 years to life state prison and two defendants were sentenced for their roles in the 1995 cold case kidnapping and brutal meat cleaver hacking murder of a man. Shannon Ray Gries, 45, Santa Ana, pleaded guilty on May 23, 2016, to one count of felony-murder for murder during the commission of kidnapping and was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison.
Co-defendant Diane Tran, 47, Costa Mesa, pleaded guilty on Jan. 24, 2014, to one felony count of voluntary manslaughter with a sentencing enhancement for being armed with a firearm in the commission of a felony. Tran was sentenced today to four years in state prison. Kody Tran, Diane Tran’s husband, was also involved in the murder but died before charges were filed in this case.
Co-defendant Norma Patricia Esparza, 41, France, pleaded guilty on Sept. 12, 2014, to one felony count of voluntary manslaughter. Esparza was sentenced today to six years in state prison.
Co-defendant Gianni Anthony Van, 46, Costa Mesa, was found guilty by a jury on May 7, 2015, of one felony count of first degree murder with a special circumstance enhancement for murder during the commission of kidnapping. Van was sentenced on July 10, 2015, to life in state prison without the possibility of parole.
Circumstances of the Case
In March 1995, Esparza, then a 21-year-old college student in Pomona, was romantically involved with Van. After they ended the relationship, Esparza returned to Orange County to visit her sister.
On March 25, 1995, Esparza went out with her sister to a bar and met 24-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez at the El Cortez bar in Santa Ana.
On the morning of March 26, 1995, Esparza had breakfast at a restaurant in Santa Ana with Ramirez, her sister, and a friend. Ramirez later drove Esparza and her friend back to Esparza’s dorm room in Pomona. The next day, March 27, 1995, Esparza visited a doctor and told both a doctor and a nurse that she had unprotected sex 58 hours prior to arriving to the doctor’s office and requested the morning after pill. Testimony given by the doctor and nurse revealed that Esparza did not report the sexual assault to any medical professional.
In early April 1995, Esparza called her ex-boyfriend, Van, and told him about Ramirez. Esparza told Van that Ramirez had raped her. Esparza did not mention the claimed sexual assault until after she had learned that Ramirez had attempted to establish a romantic connection with her sister.
Late on the night of April 15, 1995, Gries met with Esparza, Van, and another friend at Accurate Transmission in Costa Mesa, owned by Kody Tran. That night, Gries went with Esparza and Van to El Cortez, and once at the bar, Esparza pointed out Ramirez to Gries and Van.
Early on the morning of April 16, 1995, Ramirez left the bar with a friend. Gries, Van, and Kody Tran got in a van and followed as Ramirez drove away. Gries intentionally rear-ended his vehicle and forced Ramirez to pull over. When Ramirez exited his car, Gries attacked him with Van and dragged the victim into the van. Ramirez’s friend saw the attack and attempted to help the victim, but the defendants threatened the victim’s friend.
While Ramirez’s friend fled to seek help, Gries kidnapped Ramirez with Van and drove him back to Accurate Transmission, where they were met with Diane Tran. The defendants tied up the victim, drove him from Accurate Transmission to an area near Sand Canyon Road, and hacked at his body numerous times using a meat cleaver, murdering Ramirez. Gries was also in possession of a firearm at the time of the crime. The defendants then dumped Ramirez’s body on the side of Sand Canyon Road, where he was found that morning by Irvine Police Department.
The Santa Ana Police Department investigated this case, but it went cold.
Sometime after the murder, Esparza moved to France with her husband and young daughter. In that time, new evidence surfaced in the case.
Esparza re-entered the United States in October 2012, landing in Boston. During the jury trial, additional evidence was presented to the court which showed Esparza intended to spend the week in Connecticut in the apartment of a former lover. Esparza was arrested shortly therefore and extradited back to Orange County to face charges related to Ramirez’s murder. Gries, Van, and Tran were arrested shortly thereafter.
After being released on bail in December 2012, Esparza did not immediately return to her family, but contacted her former lover and spent an evening with him in a seaside hotel room in Los Angeles. After her arrest, Esparza also hired a public relations team to influence reporters, many of whom interviewed Esparza, and aired interviews of Esparza who attempted downplay her involvement in the murder.
Several members of Ramirez’s family attended Esparza, Gries, and Tran’s sentencing today and a victim impact statement written by the victim’s brother pursuant to Marsy’s Law was read by the People to the court.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray of the Homicide Unit prosecuted this case.
Orange County District Attorney / Case # 13ZF0162 & 12CF3070 / July 15, 2016